The current picture of Black Americans in the workplace is rife with contradiction.
There have been some recent notable gains: wages are up and unemployment is down. But overall, Black workers still lag their white counterparts, particularly in the highest paying and most powerful jobs. Even after corporate America’s promises following the racial reckoning of 2020, the number of Black managers at the most prominent companies nationwide rose only 0.1%, according to the most recent data.
These days, most management books acknowledge that individual people can’t fix the systemic issues that create such disparities. But newer strategies are laying out how Black workers can align their roots and values in order to thrive in corporate spaces while maintaining a sense of well-being.
Here’s a fresh crop of recently published books that offer practical advice for the complicated reality for Black professionals given these new dynamics.
“The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color”
In “The Way Up,” author Errol Pierre, a health care executive and professor, takes a data-driven approach to illustrating the bleak reality of Black Americans in the workplace as a systemic, pervasive crisis.
“Think of the forming of the country all the way until around 1964,” when discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed, Pierre said in an interview. “There were years and years of the inability to have social mobility … We are coming from a deficit and we’re not looking for a handout, but an equal opportunity.”
Discrimination may not always be explicit. If you’re looked over for a promotion and suspect it’s due to your race, Pierre recommends first approaching management and asking what it will take to get you to the next level. Open hostility, meanwhile, should be handled with meticulous documentation — you can even email yourself detailing discriminatory incidents — then looping in human resources along the way.
Peppered with tidbits from interviews from executives of color at firms like Microsoft Corp. and AstraZeneca Plc, “The Way Up” details how to build up your “personal board of directors.” Find a mentor that possesses the qualities you want to work on. Someone a few steps ahead of you in your career that you’ve built a rapport with already is more likely to have practical advice they can share. An executive coach can help lay out a game plan for handling thorny work situations and explain how to absorb and implement feedback. A therapist can be “preventive medicine” for dealing with anxiety, stress or trauma. Friends and peers should also be part of your system.
“Ensure that you surround yourself with people who are like-minded and also have the same belief in life so that they help you versus pull back,” Pierre said.
“I’m Not Yelling: A Black Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Workplace”
There’s one message Elizabeth Leiba has for Black women at work: Speak up.
“The most important thing is to lean into your authenticity and understand the power of your voice,” said Leiba, podcaster and author of “I’m Not Yelling.” “Understand the power of an accurate story.”
Throughout “I’m Not Yelling,” Leiba returns to the concept of Black women’s words being misrepresented and lays out her own strategies for combating microaggressions. For example, in a meeting when a person misstates something she has said, she interjects and clarifies what she meant. Each time it becomes less awkward and leads to less misunderstandings, she writes.
There’s also advice in the book on using your own words to build your brand by leveraging social media to gain visibility without your thoughts being filtered through someone else. Each chapter ends with reflection questions and positive affirmations on such topics as curbing impostor syndrome, natural hair and professionalism and self-confidence.
“This is my love letter to Black women,” Leiba said.
“Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace”
Minda Harts stresses that the burden of fixing a company’s racist and misogynist practices should not fall on women of color. That’s work the people in charge — and those at fault — should take on.
But when it comes to processing and moving on from past experiences, Harts knows firsthand that it can be difficult to know where to start. In “Right Within,” the author and workplace consultant weaves her own experiences being singled out, subjected to racist jokes and passed over for new positions. The book functions as a guide, encouraging Black women and other women of color to recognize the pain they may have suppressed to get the job done, and to reflect on what a more equitable workplace can look like. The book also includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter and digestible steps readers can take to assess their current and former workplaces.
“When you experience any discrimination in the workplace, it has a confining and oppressive effect on your mental health,” Harts said via email.
The book provides moments of reflections across a variety of scenarios — whether folks are currently in a toxic workplace, are just beginning to process the racism they faced at a past employer or want to maintain any growth they’ve accomplished in their life and career.
“The only next course of action is rebuilding trust,” Harts said. “Equity at work no longer is optional, but mandatory.”
“Black Faces in High Places: 10 Strategic Actions for Black Professionals to Reach the Top and Stay There”
Randal Pinkett still bristles when he talks about the first edit of the manuscript for his 2010 book with Jeffrey Robinson, “Black Faces in White Places.” Unbeknown to the authors, the editor had expunged any references to faith from the book.
“She said ‘faith has no place in a business book,'” Pinkett recalled.
The authors threatened to break their contract and the sections were restored, according to Pinkett. In the follow up, “Black Faces in High Places,” which published last year, the authors made sure there was no misunderstanding about the role they see for faith and ethics in business, especially for people of color.
The book lays out 10 steps for succeeding in business for Black professionals with anecdotes drawing from President Barack Obama, former American Express Chief Executive Officer Ken Chenault, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and others. The first three steps ask an aspiring business leader to develop a clear sense of values and mission and ensure they are pursing an idea that has meaning for them — even before they launch into the more conventional steps such as building a network, finding mentors, leveraging strengths and transformation. In his case, Pinkett says it’s his Christian faith, but the idea is that people need to fully understand and operate from their own place of defined values and ethics.
“As a person of color, my experience and the experience of those that we interviewed, is that as you traverse higher and higher, the winds of pressure and expectation only blow more violently,” Pinkett said. “If you’re not grounded in who you are, that’s your anchor, if you’re not clear about your direction, that’s your compass, then you’re a leaf in the wind, and you’re just blowing around aimlessly.”
Pinkett’s next book, “Data-Driven DEI: The Tools and Metrics You Need to Measure, Analyze, and Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” is due out in March.